wears the trousers magazine

anaïs mitchell & erin mckeown: live at the luminaire 23/01/10

Anaïs Mitchell / Erin McKeown
The Luminaire, London ••••½
January 23, 2010

She’s done it again. Almost exactly a year to the day that Anaïs Mitchell last stepped off of the Luminaire stage to rapturous applause and ear-splitting whooping, Vermont’s finest export (better even than Ben & Jerry’s ice cream) takes a bow and shyly soaks up the deserved adulation. This time, though, she can’t take all the credit. This evening was made extra special by the presence of Erin McKeown, the petite, dynamo veteran of six studio albums and the latest signing to Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records. Aside from offering excellent value for money, this co-headlining tour from the labelmates (or “stablemates”, as they jokingly refer to each other) offers an unprecedented chance to see these two top-tier singer-songwriters play together, collaborating on several of each other’s songs as the set progresses.

Dressed all in white and wielding a hefty mint-green Gretsch semi-acoustic, Erin bounds out from behind the velvet curtain first, winning over the crowd immediately with strutting performances of some early material, with the short, sweet ‘Queen Of Quiet’ an early standout. Nimbly churning out rapid-fire lyrics almost as cleanly as her hands dart all over her fretboard, her confidence is addictive and the crowd don’t need much encouragement to clap and stomp and sing along. Introducing a suite of songs from her newest album, Hundreds Of Lions, with the punningly titled ‘(Put The Fun Back In) The Funeral’ – a song about claustrophobia inspired by being on a smoky tourbus in Sweden, a breakup and a family death – Erin raises her game to bring the songs to life outside of their lush, layered studio arrangements.

A knowing quip here and there does the trick nicely (most notably during ‘The Lions’, whose “Why am I always the bottom and never the top?” gets a laugh), and it’s all aboard the charm express. Things get even better when Anaïs steps out from behind the curtain and takes up position at a mini synth for poppy highlight ‘Santa Cruz’. They follow it up with a great rendition of ‘We Are More’ from Erin’s 2005 album We Will Become Like Birds, their very different voices working together to create a spine-tingling whole, and a few other numbers before Erin regains the spotlight to herself. Her always brilliant cover of jazz standard ‘Rhode Island Is Famous For You’ gets the biggest applause, though it’s closely rivalled by the closing ‘La Petite Mort’, a song about orgasms which comes complete with a demand to see “more fisting”, by which she means punching the air as we chant “O Estelle!”

It’s hard to imagine Anaïs being quite so cheeky on stage, and, true to form, she starts her set with a weighty yarn about a shepherd whose wife dies in childbirth as he is out making hay. “The only way is up from that one,” she grins as she launches into her second song, ‘Namesake’. Still suffering from a cold that has dogged her throughout this leg of the tour, Anaïs is missing some of her top notes but none of her endearing character (a complaint that UK pharmacies don’t stock her trusted zinc-based cold remedy Zicam is followed by a shrug and “But you have healthcare!”). Some of her best songs get an airing tonight, including ‘Changer’ and ‘Old Fashioned Hat’ from 2007’s The Brightness and ‘Cosmic American’ from 2004’s Hymns For The Exiled, but it’s the songs from upcoming album Hadestown that get the biggest cheers. Erin joins her to add some texture to ‘Wedding Song’ (playing the part of Eurydice to Anaïs’s Orpheus, sung on the album by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver) and ‘Why We Build The Wall’, a by-now staple gem that’s delivered “several octaves” above Greg Brown’s Hadestown version, in which he plays the role of Hades.

If there’s one complaint of the evening, it’s that Erin’s presence on the breathtakingly pretty acoustic ballad ‘Your Fonder Heart’ seems a little overbearing, drowning out Anaïs’s guitar. But a singalong version of early number ‘1984’ and a spirited performance of Hadestown track ‘Our Lady Of The Underground’ that’s – whisper it – better than Ani DiFranco’s recorded version make up for it; Anaïs’s joyful, hiccupping vocals bring the imagery of Persephone lording it over the lost souls in a post-apocalyptic speakeasy to life with a seductive verve that’s hard to resist. Then, all too soon, it’s encore time. Erin and Anaïs tell how they tried to come up with an ’80s song they could cover, then, when that failed, a hip hop track they could reinterpret ironically; eventually they settled on an old gospel track ‘Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down’, which rounds things off with a raw, bluesy brilliance, the sound of two women having the time of their lives. So good, in fact, it seems a shame for it to stop. Definitely worth going to hell and back for. And even Kilburn, too.

Alan Pedder

Photo by Quiet Choir


1 Comment so far
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One of the best nights out I’ve had in ages, especially after the step to the stage was converted to a seat. Now I have to go and checkout ani’s version of that song…how dare I not know of this!

Comment by Quiet Choir

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